Friday, April 17, 2015

MC Sports Report: Never Give Up!‎

Welcome to Israel and the beaches of Tel Aviv.
Two weeks before we went to Israel I opened my favorite Football App, ESPN FC, and learned that Maccabi Tel Aviv was at home on Monday night, April 6. We were only going to be in Tel Aviv for three nights on our way to Jerusalem, and that date worked, so I was excited about the chance to see Israel's oldest and most decorated football club.

We were in Nicosia and my Cypriot phone plan allowed me to make a few international calls so I found the phone number for the Macabbi Football Ticket office and gave them a call. Got through without any problem and learned this was the biggest match of the year. #1 Maccabi vs arch-rival #2 Hapoel Be'er-Sheva, No chance to get a ticket. Sorry sold-out!

Undeterred, I sent an email to the club office and pleaded my case. I probably mentioned that I write a blog and that somehow it would make sense if I could attend and write about the match. I also sent emails to our Airbnb host in Tel Aviv as well as our host in Jerusalem asking them if they knew how I could get a ticket. No joy.

When we arrived in Tel Aviv I started asking everyone I met, including the Taxi driver from the airport how to get a ticket. Still no joy.

The next morning, Monday April 6th, we were on a Free Walking Tour of the Old City of Jaffa so I asked the Tour Guide. She had no clue but took me into a little Tabac/betting shop before the tour started and asked the owner how I could get a ticket. Turns out that a group of men were sitting around a table filling out stacks of Keno cards, or betting cards or who knows what. Her question started a conversation between the men, the shop owner and other patrons, all in Hebrew of course. Before long a man sitting at the table told our tour guide that he was planning on going to the match. He didn't have a ticket either, but if I would meet him back at the Tabac shop at 8pm I could go with him to see if we could buy tickets from a scalper. His name was David.

As in all things in life, the harder it was to get a ticket, the more I wanted to go to the match. Since David's offer was the only one I had, I decided to go for it. I came back at 8:00 pm as requested and found David and the three other men still sitting at the same table filling out the same forms. I'm not sure what they do all day but apparently that's a day's work for David and his friends.

My friend David made it all possible. Thanks.
David's English was very limited but we soon set-out on foot for the short 10 minute walk to Bloomfield Stadium. The match was set to start at 8:45. Our first stop was behind the visitor's section. David thought we'd most likely find tickets from fans of Be'er Sheva, but as it turns out no one was selling.

So, we walked to the other side of the stadium where the Tel Aviv fans were pouring in. David dove into the crowd of men and started looking for sellers. My assignment was to stay right behind him and not get lost. By now it was 8:20 pm and even I could see buyers and sellers. It is legal to buy and sell tickets so transactions were pretty much out in the open yet still discreet.

That's David in the white/gray shirt working the crowd looking for tickets
David told me he was only willing to pay 100 NIS (New Israeli Shekels) which translates to $25. I set a budget of 150 NIS. As things started to heat-up, David reported that tickets were be offered at 300, 400 and even 500 for a VIP ticket. It was now 8:30 pm and I could feel the level of activity and anxiety rise as fans streamed into the stadium and the crowd outside was shrinking. (The whole experience made we want to contact Planet Money and suggest they do a story on the supply/demand curve for scalpers and buyers in the final minutes leading up to kick-off.)

At 8:35 pm David decided that he could not find a ticket within his budget and he said he was heading home to watch the match on TV. I thanked him for his help and we said our goodbyes. Off he went. A moment later I turned around and somehow made eye contact with a guy who said, in English, he had a ticket for sale. I offered 150. He accepted and that's when I started to panic because David had been telling me all night that I needed to be aware of fake tickets and if I bought a ticket I should only pay the seller once I was inside the gate.

Security check. One more stop to go.
I wasn't sure what to do next. That's when I looked-up and saw that David hadn't gotten that far so I yelled for him. Somehow he heard me, turned around and I waved frantically for him to come back. He did and for a minute or two he and Rory (my seller) conversed in Hebrew. It was now 8:37 pm and David said I should take the deal. He headed home and I  followed Rory towards the gate.

Just below the lights are floor-to-ceiling metal turnstiles
Rory showed the guard his tickets (actually two club membership cards) and in we went. I thought that was a good sign, but that was just the pre-check. The noise from inside the stadium was getting louder by the minute. The match was minutes from starting and the crowd surged forward doing the Israeli push 'n'shove leading into the metal crowd barriers and toward the security guards. I still had my money in hand. I looked at my watch and it was 8:39 pm and there were at least 100 guys in front of us. Eventually, we got to the head of the line, were quickly frisked and directed to the full-body turnstiles where Rory gave me a ticket to put in the scanner. I was nervous and put the ticket in the wrong way. Red Light. One of the cops saw what I had done and turned it around. The light turned green and in I went! Rory was right behind me and a moment later we were spit out into the stadium. The field was right in front of us and the players were filing out onto the field. The place was electric and the noise was deafening. Yay! I did it.

Looking across the field just before the match started, Maccabi colors are yellow and blue.
I got out my 200 Shekel note and offered it to Rory. He fumbled in his wallet and feigned something about he didn't have the right change - "did I have another  50 so he could give me 100 back?" The adrenalin was pumping and I wondered if he was going to take my 200 +50 and slip off into the crowd but instead he dug a 100 Shekel note out of his wallet and handed it over. Whew!

At that point I remember saying something like, can I sit with you? He mumbled something that I couldn't understand and before I could say anything else he disappeared into the crowd. I was so excited to be inside that I was not thinking clearly. That's when it dawned on me that the match was really and truly "sold-out". Yes, I was in the stadium but without my "friend" Rory I had no place to sit because it was all reserved seating and he'd taken back the card I used to get in. I had no idea where I should sit. In a matter of 30 seconds I went from feeling pretty clever to feeling stupid - now what? 

The match was just about to start so I looked for an open seat, someplace, any place. Of course everyone was standing so it was hard to even identify a seat at all. I spotted one low down near the pitch. Oops, the owner suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I decided to head up the stairs thinking maybe I could find a seat near the top of the stadium. Got there. Saw a couple of empty seats and quickly realized they were "sight obstructed" by the press box and girders. New plan.

Bloomfield Stadium seats 14,400 - In Hebrew אצטדיון בלומפילד
Went down a few rows and tried to blend in with a group but moments later a guy using some sort of international sign language, or Hebrew or both indicated I was in his seat. Damn. Another plan.

As I headed back down the stairs I noticed a seat on the aisle in row 21 that seemed empty but everyone was still standing so it was hard to tell. The referee was about to blow the whistle and start the match. In desperation, I tapped a young man on the shoulder who was standing next to the aisle and asked if he spoke English. No. That's when I tried the international hand signals and gestures to "ask" if I could sit next to him. For whatever reason, by the grace of God or some other higher power he indicated "yes" and he moved over a little to allow me to stand next to him in, what I learned later was seat 15. Whew! Thank the Lord.

Ended-up in Row 21. Note all the sunflower seed shells. Soon to be banned at Israeli stadiums.
The whistle blew and the match got underway! My shoulders dropped and I said a silent prayer of thanks. I had made it - but I started to worry that someone would come at any moment and claim their seat. There was nothing I could do about that so I focused on the match and was swept up in the emotions and excitement that filled the stadium.

The 2,000 Be'er Sheva fans were restricted to one end. The other 12,000 seats (including mine) were filled with screaming Maccabi fans who desperately wanted a win and the three points that would guarantee them the League Championship for a record 21st time.

They didn't have to wait long because in the 3rd minute, Maccabi scored and the place erupted and  the fans went crazy. Before I knew it, my seatmate, Avi Haccoun, was giving me high fives followed by a huge bear hug. I was an official fan!

Avi Haccoun saved my bacon.
From there, things settled down. I think it was about the 20 minute mark that I finally relaxed and told myself that if someone was going to claim "their" seat they surely would be here by now. That's when I looked around and realized I had one of the absolute best seats in the house and once again felt incredibly blessed to be a part of a football match a world away from Seattle.

At halftime it was still Macabbi up 1-0 but Be'er Sheva (Sister City of Seattle) came-out fired-up for the 2nd half and drove-in the equalizer in the 46th minute. Boom! For the next 30 minutes the match was played evenly by both teams but the pressure rose as the clock headed to full time and Maccabi scored off a rebound in the 79th minute and again in the 83rd to go up 3-1 and sealed the deal.

It is impossible to get a good photo from the stands with the light levels on the field. I was there!
I celebrated the win with Avi and my other new-found friends in Row 21 and made my way out of the stadium. It was 11:00 pm and Google Maps told me that it was a straight-forward 3.5km walk home so off I went. It was a beautiful night and along the way I home I joined two Macabbi fans walking the same direction. Their English was good so I was able to engage them in a post-match analysis, get answers to questions about the Israeli First Division, their thoughts on the recent Israeli elections, Netenyahu, Obama and Iran before arriving at our Airbnb apartment. A night well spent!

I was home by midnight thinking just how fun it is to experience the local culture in each country through football. Might not be for everyone, but it's a win/win for me.

Until next time.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Cyprus - The land of Sneetches

After three weeks in Greece and Turkey, we headed to the island nation of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. Cyprus is about the half the size of Connecticut, and is split into two "countries" The southern half being known as Cyprus and and the northern half as The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Cyprus is recognized as an EU country and uses the Euro, the Turkish side is only recognized as a country by Turkey.

This unhappy scenario began when Turkey invaded the island in 1974 under the guise of protecting the Turkish Cypriots during a civil war that began shortly after the British gave up control of the island in the early 60's. Before the invasion the Greek and Turkish population co-existed quite nicely. After the invasion, the country was divided between the Turks and the Greeks with a 124 mile "Green Line" complete with barbed wire, armed guards and U.N. Peacekeepers.  The on-going dispute over the occupation causes headaches and heartaches on both sides. Thus my comparison to the Sneeches. In my opinion this book gets to the root of just about every problem facing mankind. Deep, I know.

We flew from Izmir, Turkey to the island, so we landed on the Turkish side. That meant we would have to cross the Green Line to get to the Greek side where we were staying. Our host organized a taxi to pick us with a driver that was authorized to travel between sides - that is not always the case. We presented our passports at the border and got through with out any problems.

The entrance to our courtyard. Ours was the door in the left corner.
Our stay began in Cyprus' capital city of Nicosia at a lovely airbnb in the old city near the center of town. Here's the link: Our hosts were wonderful people who quickly became friends. Paulo is a retired Alitalia pilot and his lovely wife Laura was a stewardess - classic! They live in an apartment adjacent to their airbnb so we saw them often and spent some great time together in the garden courtyard under the lemon tree.

Our gracious Italian hosts Paulo and Laura. They were some of the best people we've met yet!
Their home is near the city's dividing line. In fact, if you walked just two blocks down the street and around a corner you bumped into a barbed wire fence and crumbling structures covered with ominous Do Not Enter warnings. Go a little further and armed guards back-up the message.

Signage at the "green line" near our house.
The areas between the two sides are abandoned and filled with rubble and trash.
We were so close to the Turkish side that we could hear the calls to prayer from the nearest mosque quite clearly beginning at 5:00 am in the morning. Shortly afterwards, at a slightly more civilized 7:00 am start, the Greek Orthodox church around the corner fired back with clanging bells and a broadcast of their service over loud speakers. Oddly, they are both in chant form. It made for an interesting, and early start to the day.

Michael would have loved to try his hand at backgammon - but these guys were intimidating!
Our hosts bought their house in a part of town that had nearly been destroyed during the war. The government gave generous grants to those willing to buy abandoned and damaged homes and accurately restore them to their former glory. Paulo and Laura did a fabulous job with their property. The area is now full of vibrant cafes, galleries, and start-up businesses - all benefiting from the restoration initiative.

An example of a neighborhood much like Paulo and Laura's before renovation.
These houses were dilapidated after the war - but they are lovely now! Ours is on the right.
The city of Nicosia is also divided between Turkey and Cyprus - with each side managing their half. One day Paulo and Laura invited us to walk to the Turkish side of the city for lunch and to experience crossing the border that divides the city. This involves showing your passport twice - once to the Cypriot guards, and then again, about 50 yards along the road at the Turkish side. As obvious tourists we didn't get questioned in detail, but it isn't as easy for locals. And if you feel like doing some shopping on the Turkish side for some "genuine fakes", you could lose your loot coming back to the Cyprus side. Many Cypriots have never been to the Turkish side out of principle.

Crossing back into Cyprus after a day trip to "The Other Side".
The crossing was interesting - but even more interesting was the marked difference from one side to the other. Once on Turkish soil, we were immersed in a typical souk market place and surrounded by Muslim culture. The level of affluence also dropped considerably. As we approached the crossing on the Greek side we passed dozens of high-end shops including Sephora, H&M, Zara, Tiger and more - while no brand names were visible on the Turkish side. That said, your dollar went a lot further!

Strolling the souk on the Turkish side of Nicosia.
After a week in medieval Nicosia it was time to head to the beach for a restful week in Larnaka before heading to Israel. Larnaka is just an hour's bus ride away from Nicosia but it felt like we'd flown to another country. This was beach party town! The promenade was lined with bars and restaurants, and vendors selling sunglasses, beach toys, ice-cream, fresh juice and buckets full of beer.

Standing at our 'front door' in Larnaka!
Our apartment was fine - small and a little on the sterile side, but the deck faced directly out to the sea and made it special. . I talk about our front doors sometimes, in that you never know what they might look like or what really lies behind them...well this one was a McDonald's. That's a first. The most direct way to our apartment from the main road was through the restaurant and out the back door to the entrance. We were five floors up. One cheeseburger meal, and a Sausage McMuffin with Egg breakfast later - I'll take a more traditional, less fattening entrance next time, thank you!

The view from our deck. On this particular morning there was a parade!
Our week was spent reading, writing, walking, and occasionally swimming in the deep blue sea.
And eating of course. The cuisine on the island is the best of these two colliding cultures - Greek and Turkish! The weather was mixed, but when the sun was out it was glorious. It was nice to spend a week somewhere that wasn't too mentally taxing. It felt like a "vacation" from our usual Senior Nomadic adventures. Sounds odd, doesn't it?

A day trip by bus to the town of Girne (Kyrenia in Greek) on the Turkish side.
The highlight for Michael was attending a 1st division Cypriot football match between Apoel and Apollon. It was one of the most exciting matches he's attended so far and, as always there are some great moments to share. Read his Excitement in Cyprus blog that we posted last week for the full story.

Michael enjoying one of his best football adventures yet!
Cyprus is an island with a exhaustive history of occupation by numerous tribes and nations. We were happy to have occupied it for two weeks. We leave in peace.

...I'm quite happy to say that the Sneetches got really smart on that day. The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches, and no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches. That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars and whether they had one, or not, upon thars.

Thanks for joining us!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

MC Sports Report - Excitement in Cyprus

Beautiful day for local derby in Nicosia, Cyprus
The last match I attended was a 2nd Division match in Italy. Then things went dry for a few weeks. Our travel schedule did not sync-up with football fixtures while we were in Greece and Turkey so I was happy to find out that I could attend a match when we got to Nicosia, Cyprus. Here's a quick "scene set" to catch you up on the country Cyprus.
  • Small island in the Mediterranean just 150 miles west of Syria and 175 miles south of Turkey.
  • Divided into two parts since the Turkish Invasion of 1974.
  • The Republic of Cyprus is in the south - a member of UN, European Union; uses the Euro; speak Greek.
  • Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Not recognized as a country by anyone in the world except Turkey; use the Turkish Lire; speak Turkish.
  • The capital city of Nicosia is in the center of the island and is also divided with the two sides separated by the "Green Line" and monitored by UN Peacekeeping forces since 1974. Actual razor wire, guards with guns along a 124 mile dividing line running east to west.
With that said, when a person talks about football in Cyprus, they mean the Republic of Cyprus with a population of little over a million people, ranked 155th of the193 countries in the United Nations. The Cypriot national team is currently ranked 96th in the FIFA World Rankings. Pretty good for a country its size. The 1st Division has 12 teams.

We landed on a Saturday at noon in the Northern part of Cyprus because we flew in from Turkey. We quickly crossed the border to the Republic of Cyprus and found the house we had rented in the Old Town of Nicosia. I knew there was a match that afternoon at 4 pm and our Airbnb host offered to drive me to the match and drop me off. Just 4 km away he said so I figured I could easily walk home.

My Greek is close to zero but this says Apoel vs. Apollon
So, off we went in his car but before long I realized that we had driven way more than 4 km. In fact we were on a freeway headed out of town. Ten minutes later the stadium came into view next to the freeway and traffic slowed to a crawl. At that point we were at least 10 km from town but there was no turning back. Paolo dropped me off by the side of the road and just for a second I wondered if I had become a little too cavalier about my ability to find my way home from these matches. In this case, matters were worse because I hadn't had time to get a Cypriot SIM card and my Turkish SIM card was not working so no Internet access, hence no Google Map app which meant I was pretty much flying blind. Nothing like a little challenge :)

Mind you I didn't have a ticket yet and didn't know anything about the match except that it started at 4 pm. It was now 3:30 and I blended into a crowd of fans making their way towards the stadium. I quickly realized I was on the "wrong" side of the highway from the stadium in a run-down, dirt parking lot where all the away supporters (in this case Apollon fans) were dropped off. There were cops all around, many in balaclavas, knee pads and full riot gear where the police work the crowd of 200 hundred or so like cowboys driving cattle.

After speaking to one of the cops and asking where to buy a ticket, I found myself among a group of fans walking under the highway, stepping over and around a stream on our way to the stadium. It reminded me of pictures you see on the news of illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico into America.

I followed the away supporters from a dirt parking lot under the highway to the stadium
As we approached the stadium I found some nice young kids who spoke English. They were all Apollon fans and their section was sold-out. They didn't know anything about tickets for the home team. Mild panic set in but the stadium looked pretty big so I remained optimistic.

I kept walking and before long I was in line for tickets for Apoel, the home team. Good news. I could buy a ticket. I made friends with Marios, the guy behind me in line who spoke English. By the time we got to the ticket window I found out that tickets were the equivalent of $9. More good news. It turns out that he and his buddies were supporters of Appolon. They had not bought tickets back home in Limassol in time to sit in the away supporters section so their plan was to buy tickets on the Apoel side and then sit on their hands the whole match so as not to give away their loyalties. They had jackets that covered their team colors in order to blend in.

Supporters for Apollon from Limassol in the away section. Note yellow-vested security surrounding them.
By the time we both had our tickets, we were joined by 3 of his friends and were making our way into the stands where we found our seats near the top of the section.

Apoel supporters (home) at the other end with pre-match "card stunt" felt like a college game in America
By now I had the story line down for the match. This was a huge derby. Going into the match, Apollon (in blue/away) was at the top of the table by 1 point. They had not won in the stadium since 2000. Apoel (in yellow/home) was 2nd in the table. An Apoel win would put them top of the table above their arch-rival. The sun was out. The place was packed. The noise was intoxicating and I was ready for a match that lived-up to the billing. Apoel struck early and scored just 9 minutes into the match and of course the fans went crazy.

The air went out of their balloon win the 29th minute when Apoel was called for a foul in their own penalty area. Drama. Penalty kick. Apollon scored! Match tied 1-1. The whistles from the home town fans were deafening.

Normally I cheer for the home team. Why not? I usually don't have loyalties one way or the other but in this case since I was sitting with Marios and his friends so decided to become a closet Apollon supporter for the day. Remember, "we" were in first place wanting to defend our position top of the table AND "we" had not won here in 15 years which made it fun to root for Apollon.

A few minutes later, Apoel seized the day and scored again in the 34th minute with a beautiful shot on goal to go up 2-1. Minutes later Apollon went on the offense. The Apoel keeper left the goal box to try and block a shot. Then the ball ricochet off his foot and what seemed like slow-motion the ball keeps rolling slowly towards the goal. Both teams start chasing the ball but no one gets there before the ball dribbles across the line and the score is tied 2-2. More whistles.

At halftime, I started focusing on how I was going to get "home" to Nicosia. I told Marios the story of the cop I met before the game who pointed out where I might catch a bus a mile or so from the stadium. I was hoping that they might have more information but since they were from Limassol they didn't know Nicosia that well. Just before I left for the match I grabbed a map which fortunately had a  red "x" indicating where our house was in the Old City. Marios and his friends studied the map and before long said "not to worry". They would give me a ride to town and then I could catch a bus, taxi or walk. Whew!

Time for the second half. The first half had been thrilling. Maybe the best I had seen in a dozen matches I'd been to in Europe as a Senior Nomad. Knowing I had a plan on getting home, I relaxed and got ready for another exciting 45 minutes of soccer....and wow, was it ever!

Up and down the field. Back and forth. As time went on both teams started pressing harder and harder. Yellow cards starting popping up like dandelions. Both teams really wanted the 3 points. At one point I thought both teams would start throwing punches but the referee got the match under control.

Referee Vasilis Demetriou earning his wages keeping the teams apart late in the match
The clock kept ticking and the intensity grew along with more yellow cards until the 76th minute when Apoel put the ball in the net to go ahead 3-2 but then everyone looked to the linesman (actually a young woman, the only female Assistant Referee in the Cypriot 1st Division) and her flag was up.


No goal!!

The home fans were the picture of dejection.

Discussing the merits of the offside call
End of regulation. 4 minutes of extra time. Apoel almost scores then commits a foul at the other end. Penalty Kick for Apollon from 30 yards out. Just misses. Whistle blows. Match Over. Both teams take away 1 point and Apollon remains top of the table. Home town fans walked out of the stadium with heads down in despair. Their team, of course, was robbed by the bad offside call. The away fans were elated and happy to get out of town with another draw (their 5th draw in the stadium since 2000).

After the match, I follow Marios and his friends back under the freeway to the parking lot, over some fences and across a farmer's field headed for his car. While we were walking, they took off their jackets to show their colors now that we were lost in a sea of Apollon supporters.

A great day of football + a ride home. Who could ask for more?
We jumped in his Skoda and off we went headed (I hoped) to Nicosia. After dropping off two of his friends, Marios suggested I jump I the front seat and away we went. Again, I was hoping that we were heading somewhere near home. It seemed like we drove for a long, long time. It was dark by now and I didn't see any businesses open, a single bus or a taxi. My bravado about walking home was starting to feel a little misplaced when Marios said something like, "I think where you are staying should be somewhere around here."

I looked up and like an airplane descending from low clouds and seeing the runway just before landing, I recognized the mini-mart in front of us. We had shopped earlier in the day for groceries and I knew I was going to get home. I jumped out. Thanked Marios and told him that because of his kindness to a stranger he was going to heaven for sure. I still was not sure exactly where our house was because they all looked the same in the dark. I headed down the first narrow road hoping to recognize the house. After walking for a few minutes I thought I found it. I got out my key and tentatively put it in the lock hoping that I was opening the door to the our courtyard. The key went it. I gave it a turn and "voila" it opened. Yay!

Prayers answered. Great day out. Confidence back and before I was in the house I was already thinking about the next match when we will be in Larnaca. The home team is AEK Larnaca. They are currently in 3rd place and will host Apoel.  If I'm able to get a ticket to see the match I'll let you know. I'll take a map!

Until then,